Chaos Theory and Parenthood

by George Hatjoullis

Chaos theory is a form mathematics that studies systems that are sensitive to initial conditions. Small variations in where you start can lead to dramatic differences in where you end. Curiously enough what got me thinking about this was not, as you might have reasonably assumed, the fact that it is Mother’s day, but an article on car tax in Which? magazine. If I had not read Which? magazine this morning I would not be writing this article. An example of chaos theory in practice.

The Government in its wisdom is changing the way new cars are taxed from April 1. At the moment car tax is based on CO2 emissions. From April 1 only the first year of tax will be based on emissions. After year 1 all new diesel and petrol cars will pay one rate, £140, regardless of emissions, all new hybrids will pay £130, and electric cars will be exempt for their lifetime. So, using the Which? figures, a Toyota Prius buyer will pay £1185 more after 10 years. The same car registered before April 1 2017 would pay nothing. A Ford Mustang will pay £2495 less than if registered before April 1 2017. The government it seems wishes to encourage higher CO2 cars.

Not so argues the Government. The Government argues that it is the first year car tax that has the biggest influence on choice of car so the incentive to buy cars with low CO2 emissions is unaffected. The system is sensitive to initial conditions. This means either people are unaware of the overall cost difference or are truly unconcerned about the ten-year costs and only care about year one. The former implies they do not read Which?, newspapers, or car magazines. The latter implies that they are economically irrational. My own view is that who ever thought this scheme up may have inhaled too many exhaust fumes.

The likely result will be to desensitize people to emissions in so far as car tax is a consideration. Of course the emissions issue enters elsewhere e.g. city congestion charging. Those that look at CO2 beyond personal finance will at the margin be driven towards fully electric, aka plug-in. The dynamic system that determines car choice is not as sensitive to initial conditions as the government seems to think, though the result of their actions is chaotic. So what has this got to do with parenthood?

Parents typically act in the way that they think is best for their child. The dynamic system, aka life, that determines outcomes for each child is complex, non-linear, and full of discontinuities. It is mathematically chaotic. It is very sensitive to small variations in initial conditions and there is no way of knowing how each variation will work out. In effect, however well-intentioned, parents have no idea what they are doing or whether what they think is best is in fact, best. Indeed, they have no idea what ‘best’ would look like. So if you are a parent sitting there wondering where you went wrong, don’t. You did nothing wrong, or right. You were never in control of the situation. If the government cannot get car tax sorted what chance do parents have with children?